A message to the glorious pubs of England…from a humble but hopefully helpful vegetarian

Adventures, Flotsam and Jetsom, Recipes, Uncategorized

We enjoyed a lovely trip to a local pub last night. The lights twinkled and a welcoming open fire roared. Charming staff were hanging swags of pine boughs with sprinkles of red winter berries, and fragrant dried oranges slices shot through with cloves from the walls – so festive! And merry! In short, flag-stone floors, wood-panels and all, it was the perfect country pub. With a fine looking menu – imaginative and beautiful, with thought-through side dishes and lovely looking flavours.

Just one problem. And an issue we come across as members of that fortunately no-longer-quite-so-scant tribe, vegetarians, so, so often. There was a measly one veggie option on the main couse menu. In the season where the shelves of the local food cooperative I work for occasionally are groaning with stacks of hearty, wholesome, tasty winter veg – scarlet kale, a trillion different varieties of squash, nutty little Jerusalem artichokes, knobbly celeriac, long leeks in their prime, and of course the most fragrant of carrots sitting alongside the standard potatoes and onions.

Both my husband and I are passionate about food. Cooking, baking and eating take up a lot of our time and attention. We based our honeymoon destination choice (Italy) largely on the culinary opportunities we hoped to sample, and no one ever stays the night at our house without being force fed homemade sourdough bread, baked eggs in a spicy, tomato sauce, sprinkled with fresh herbs and tangy feta, or fresh halloumi and sweetcorn fritters piled with avocado, sweet baked cherry tomatoes and chili, or rosti potatoes topped with organic eggs and mushrooms…you get the picture. We just absolutely love food.

Which is why it’s soooooo dreary and disappointing when we head to a pub that we’ve heard great things about and are met with a lonely little option.

However, in the spirit of being constructive and generous, rather than glum, I’ve put together these insights, which are the same thoughts I have each and every time I find myself staring at my one option, too often pasta or…argh….the dreaded risotto, and thinking ‘I could make that at home, without spending £15 on it’.

Of course, not all veggies will share this opinion, and I haven’t even reached vegan food on this post. Which we eat a lot of at home. But to any meat-eating chefs, struggling to think of inspired veggie options for your menu – maybe these insights will be helpful. We love fancy, imaginative, creative food, we also love light, healthy food. But often, when we go to a pub, we just want lovely, simple, hearty, well-flavoured pub food. The vegetarian equivelant of your meat options. So here goes. The often-mulled on observations of this vegetarian, specifically aimed at the noble English pub kitchen.

  • We love hearty food too! It’s just about the worst when everyone else is tucking into delicious pies and pub food, juicy, groaning plates of rich gravy and vegetables, and you’re looking at a light salad, pasta or risotto option. It makes one feel excluded, un-considered and not valuable as a customer. How about a lovely wild mushroom pie on creamy mash with a lovely gravy, a chard and sweet potato gratin with melting strings of gruyere, something as simple as a deep, juicy caramelised onion and cheddar tart or the versatile gallette, stuffed full of local cheese, seasonal veg, whatever’s around at the time basically. Or how about a really delicious veggie burger. NOT a field mushroom and a slice of halloumi – seriously, that’s a sandwich, not a burger. Why not use your imagination and create your own house version – tempeh, walnuts, mushrooms are all good ingredients to chuck in. Anna Jones has an amazing one, and these Oh She Glows Thai sweet potato burgers with peanut sauce are heavenly. There are so many more options than tired old field-mushroom-and-halloumi not-a-burger-at-all.
  • Which brings me to Sunday roasts – I used to live in the vegetarian haven of Brighton, where I was spoiled, and got used to delicious veggie roasts in pretty much every pub; toad in the hole with veggie sausages (my favourite actually, due to the automatically included yorkshire pudding!), nut roasts with rich seams of spinach and mushrooms (nut roasts are a little boring, but better than no option at all), rainbow pies, with layers of red cabbage, mashed sweet potato, creamed with nutmeg, bright spinach and soft, white cheese, and the simple but delicious wellington (literally, so easy, sheet of puff pastry, sauteeed onions, herbs, mushrooms and chestnuts, finely chopped and chucked in there with some wilted spinach and goats cheese before baking.) Since moving to Oxford, we’ve found ourselves very short on veggie roast options. We simply don’t go out for roasts anymore, as they’re just not a thing round here.
  • We love English-inspired flavours and lovely pub food too! Basically, if we want a curry, we’ll go to an Indian restaurant, where it’ll undoubtedly be better, if we want pasta (or indeed, risotto), we’ll go to an Italian restaurant (ditto), if we want a salad, we’ll head to a cafe, and we really never, ever, ever want risotto in a pub. We’ve literally had it at every Christmas meal ever, while our friends tuck into heaving plates of roast meats and vegetables, at every wedding we’ve ever been to and every work event in our lives. Please. For the love of all that is vegetarian. No more risotto! We’ve honestly eaten so much of the stuff. And it’s never even as good as a homemade version. When we go to a pub, we’re looking for delicious, hearty pub food that’s a bit of a treat, ideally inspired by seasonal produce, featuring lovely local flavours, thyme, sage, sorrel and classic English deliciousness.
  • Do give us more than one option. It’s only fair really don’t you think? What if we have an allergy linked to something in the one option? Or simply don’t fancy it. Or would like to choose which dish we’re going to spend our money on. Put yourself in our shoes. Would you think well of a place that literally offered you one choice, take it or leave it? No matter how lovely that choice is, it doesn’t make us feel valued, it makes us feel like an unimportant afterthought. Which, when you consider our money is the same as a meat-eater’s money, doesn’t seem fair. It makes us resent that one choice. Even when it looks like it might be nice. The psychology of food is so important don’t you think? Looking at a menu and feeling so excited you can’t even decide what to have is one of the pleasures of eating out. Scanning the menu and realising that choice is not open to the likes of you is a little disappointing.
  • Consider that many meat eaters enjoy vegetarian food too – I have so many friends who order veggie options in restaurants and pubs, not because they can’t eat the meat ones, but because they often prefer a veggie option.
  • Lastly, you’re really doing yourselves an injustice. As chefs, don’t you do your jobs because you love food? And have trained, developed and refined your skills, so that we, as humble punters, get to benefit from your professional expertise? Shouldn’t that love and fascination extend to all food? If a large chunk of your clients are going away with the idea that the pinnacle of your skillset is to boil some pasta and chuck in some cream, garlic and mushrooms, then that’s not a true reflection of your talents. One of my favourite foodie-follows on Instagram is River Cottage chef Gill Meller. Although he often posts pictures of pork belly – and on one occasion, squirrel and potato rosti – he also posts up delightful little onion squashes stuffed with fennel, barley, herbs and cheese and pots of wild mushroom, blue cheese and cider soup. In short, his immense passion for and knowledge of food bursts out of his feed, whether it’s meat, fish or vegetables. It’s a beautiful thing. Do check him out.

Here endeth the missive. And if any chefs need a vegetarian taster/sounding board/ideas bouncer-off-er….HERE I AM!

PS. For any veggies looking for great pub food in the Oxford area, I must recommend The Perch in Binsey. They have a fantastic, imaginative, beautiful array of veggie options, on what is still a small, refined little menu. I leave you with a picture of their potato, parsnip and wild rice cakes, swimming in a pool of mushroom, sage and cider cream and topped with tangy beetroot relish, which is on their current winter menu. Get thee down there. They have a seperate vegan menu too, the lovely things.

perch

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Stockholm, coffee shop, freelancer, freelance life, Il Caffe, Coffice, Fikabaren, Kaffe, Djurgarden, YogaYama, yoga, work

Four perfect spots to plug in and get stuff done in Stockholm

Adventures, Flotsam and Jetsom

I recently took a solo trip to Stockholm. Landing two days after a fierce, and apparently a-typically heavy snowstorm for mid-November, the pretty city was blanketed in thick drifts of snow. Unlike the UK, where life becomes a slippery nonsense as trains stop, pavements ice over and roads grind to a halt, Stockholm in the snow was easy to navigate, and all the more beautiful for its fresh winter coat of the soft stuff.

Most of my trip was spent drifting round galleries, nosing round vintage shops and book stores, and eyeing up the gorgeous succulents, alpines and purple cabbages that decorated the front of Stockholm’s many florists, displays spilling out onto pavements. I took peaceful trips by boat between the islands that make up the Stockholm archipelago, to wander round the famous Djurgården – which felt as if I’d wandered through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia in all the magical snow – and visit the Museum of Modern Art on the next island along. I took a yin yoga class at YogaYama – a wonderful yoga studio with beautiful sauna, steam room, shop and café, not to mention incredibly helpful and friendly staff. And I discovered the Swedish love for buffet food, where you pay for your plate, and help yourself to as much as you’d like. It was generally wonderful.

Being a freelancer, I don’t find it easy to escape regular deadlines, and for a couple of hours each day, I packed up my laptop, and ventured forth to find myself a cosy corner to work in.

It’s unsurprising really, as Stockholm is such a tech hub, but it has an amazing culture of coffee shops that welcomingly double as office space. Particularly in trendy Södermalm (or SoFo) where I was staying, where it’s not hard to stumble upon creative, retro-vibed coffee shops, replete with plenty of plug sockets, bar space, and small tables for one or two, a gentle buzz of focus, and pockets of designers, writers, and various tech industry freelancers tapping away, Skyping or meeting. Sometimes in the UK you can feel a little guilty for taking up table space with your laptop, but in Stockholm, coffee shop/offices seem to be simply part of the culture.

As a freelance writer and editor, it was a godsend, and I found myself super productive as I sipped delicious coffee, nibbled more than one cardamom roll, and drew on the creative, busy atmosphere.

Here are some of my favourite finds:

Coffice, Tjärhovsgatan 5

Literally, as the name suggests, part coffee shop, part office. Set up by a group of architects, there are meeting rooms you can book, and a membership scheme that gets you easier access to their facilities. But you can also just drop in, grab an excellent coffee (or two), and plug in for as long as you like. With an eclectic, spacious, industrial feel – white tiles, exposed lighting cables and low tanks of plants – it’s buzzy but focused. It’s definitely somewhere people come to work, and you’ll find yourself surrounded by trendy looking, efficient tech-types grabbing some meeting time or just a quiet corner to get some work done.

Il Caffe, Södermannagatan 23

There are actually three branches of this coffee shop, but I only visited the SoFo branch. But I liked it so much I picked it as my office twice! A little less office-y than Coffice, Il Caffe is cleverly divided into sections, so that if you’re there for a coffee and a catch up with a friend, you can sit in their welcoming bar area and be tempted by their tasty looking food (I can personally vouch for the awesomeness of their cardamom buns). But if you’re working, there are two other quieter spaces, with small tables and long bars. There’s a very cool, relaxed vibe that teams muted pops of colour, like their a retro diner-style orange bar and cream and orange floor tiles, with pale walls, low hanging, exposed lighting and modern prints on the wall. It also joins onto the florist next door, so you can gaze at the lovely plants and flowers – and in my case, handily pick up a pretty gift for your Airbnb host.

Kaffe, Sankt Paulsgatan 17

While the coffee competition in Stockholm is high, at Kaffe, it really is stand-out excellent. So if it’s the coffee you’ve come for, this is a great choice. Clean and cool, with large windows looking out onto the street, white walls and high stools clustered up against bar space, it’s a fuss-free, simple place to get an excellent coffee, and enjoy a quiet space to work. It doesn’t have the buzz of Coffice or the gentle hum of industry of Il Caffe, but it does have the coffee, and a quieter feel for those who prefer fewer distractions while they work.

Fikabaren, Södermanagatan 10

OK, it’s not really a place to work in the same way as the others, it’s much more of a social meetup place in the traditional coffee shop fashion. But I did curl up in this super-hip, cosy little coffee shop with a wonderful book, which I’d bought from the lovely little English Bookshop just round the corner, and if I had some papers to read or background research to do, I’d certainly pick this place. There were a few people plugged in and tapping away, but more visitors were enjoying what the name suggests its best for – fika. I think everywhere should have fika – which basically seems to translate (apologies to any Swedes if I’ve misunderstood!) as a break for coffee, usually accompanied by a sweet snack, and a chance to slow down, take a moment, and preferably enjoy some good company. The décor is everything a Stockholm newbie might hope for in terms of Scandi-style minimalism. Pale grey, rough plaster walls, smooth wooden benches, some with a sheepskin rug casually thrown over for extra comfort, instagrammable marble tables tops with little succulents in cute pots, trendy black metal chairs and industrial-style lighting. If you’re not a fan of the hipster den, you may find it a bit much, but if you can stomach it, it’s a treat.

So there we have it. Do you have any favourite places to work in your city? Why is it so much more fun to work in a coffee shop than at home?

Stockholm, coffee shop, freelancer, freelance life, Il Caffe, Coffice, Fikabaren, Kaffe, Djurgarden, YogaYama, yoga, work

An Autumn box full of birthday memories

Adventures, Flotsam and Jetsam, Flotsam and Jetsom

Each year, Simon and I celebrate each other’s birthdays in the best way we know how – with food.

For the last few years we’ve taken each other to a special restaurant. It’s always a surprise, and part of the fun is keeping it that way for absolutely as long as possible.

Last December, for Simon’s birthday, I took us to the amazing River Cottage – which is a whole post in itself really. It was such a treat! As the car journey from Oxford got longer, and we began to turn down smaller, windier roads, Simon got more and more intrigued about where we could possibly be going, and I started to fizz with the glee of keeping such a good secret. We arrived at the place we were staying, Trill Farm, which borders River Cottage’s land, and it was only when we walked into our beautiful bedroom, and he spied a River Cottage recipe book on the dresser that he turned to me with wide eyes and a look of pure joy on his face as the penny dropped.

We had a brilliant time at River Cottage, but Trill Farm is also somewhere that sticks in the memory. A rambling, organic farm, tucked away in the Devon countryside, it’s run in a unique fashion. Managed by the Trill Trust, a conglomerate of small businesses operate out of its converted farm buildings, so that as well as the arable and beef farming (both run seperately), there’s a carpentry workshop, soap-making, a herb-growing business, vegetables and The Old Dairy Kitchen – run by Chris Onions, who caters for all Trill’s events, as well as hosting his own lunches, monthly dinner series and a brilliant sounding supper and conversations evening.

If you’re looking for a place to stay near River Cottage, or just because it’s a beautiful area, and a wonderful, peaceful place to spend a weekend (or week!), I’d really recommend Trill Farm. With their B&B, they go for a comfortable eco approach. An ecologically renovated stable block, the guest area is light and quiet, with a large communal lounge and kitchen area, and spacious rooms – with the most comfortable beds. You can feel pretty smug about your choice too – the linen and towels are organic, all the toiletries are handmade onsite, using organic herbs and botanicals, the water is solar heated, there’s ground-source underfloor heating and larch cladding to keep the heat from the cosy logburner in. Our room was airy, with that quiet, comfortably contented feel that old farm buildings often have (is it just me?) , full of calm, natural colours, and quirky bits of furniture.

Suffice to say, we were smitten. And I’ve been perusing the many courses that Trill run – including foraging, natural cooking, carpentry and yoga with the hope of going back at some point at points throughout the year. It’s been a busy one and we haven’t managed yet, but one way you get a bit of Trill Farm delivered to your door is by ordering their wonderful seasonal boxes.

One for each season, their Autumn box caught my eye and I ordered it as a post-honeymoon, cheer-up, oh-god-I-can’t-believe-we-have-to-go-to-work present for ourselves.

Unwrapping each package (nestled among brilliant eco packaging made up of hay stuffed into biodegradable plastic packs) was like Christmas – as we cooed and laid each of our new treasures out on our table.

Tea, preserves, balm, soap, body wash, and most excitingly of all, Daphne Lambert’s beautiful book, Fermenting: Recipes and Preparation, along with a handmade, ceramic fermentation pot, wooden saurkraut pounder and…a weighty Trill farm cabbage! Daphne Lambert runs seasonal nutrition courses at Trill, and I’ve been dying to go on them, so really, this is the next best thing.

The box is a beautiful thing. If you’re longing for a bit of homemade Devonian goodness in your life, get your order in for their Winter one. Unwrapping the packages, each one homemade with care, love and natural ingredients is a lovely experience. And for us, the memory of our lovely stay at a special place only added to the joy.

trill

From lengths of gold – making our own wedding rings

Adventures, Flotsam and Jetsom

image1-3

Planning a wedding is hectic. Even if you’ve every intention that your wedding will be a relaxed do, low on stress and fuss, the to-do lists are long, the admin takes time, and you end up juggling wedding tasks with life stuff in a way that can feel a lot like balancing oh so very many plates.

So spending a day together at the Quarter Workshop in Birmingham with jeweller Victoria Delany, where she guided us through crafting our own wedding rings, was a surprisingly welcome time out from other pressures. One of those lovely, hazy, gently emotion-filled days where time seems to slow down, and all that heavy stuff just lifts off your shoulders for a while.

A lot of it had to do with the fact that we’d booked this time a long time ago, and nothing could interrupt it. And handing over control to Victoria; carefully following her instructions, was such an unexpected respite from having to think, plan and make decisions for ourselves.

The whole session was underpinned by real emotion. The process of crafting, from lengths of gold, the bands that we’ll wear on our fingers as a marker of our commitment to each other, was a very special experience. It gave us some much-needed time to reflect, and simply enjoy being in each other’s company, toiling alongside one another to create something beautiful.

Victoria’s studio, in the historic Jewellery Quarter in Birmingham is perfect; white painted walls, flowers, interesting nick nacks and old fashioned tools, infused with gorgeous light, which streams through the large windows. Outside, the weather shifted from full-throated downpours to bright sunshine, but while it blustered and shone, we carried on with our craft in the quiet calm of the studio.

Victoria took us through the process step by step, which meant that non of it ever seemed intimidating. We only ever focussed on one task at a time. My engagement ring is an unusual shape, and I wanted the band to curve around it. I’d initially wanted a very plain gold band, but it didn’t sit very well with my engagement ring, so I came around to the idea of one that flowed around it in a sculptural style, fitting up against and into it snugly.

This meant some nervous practising on copper first, and when we felt more confident of our skills, on silver – which was less yielding than the bendy copper, and more similar to what we’d encounter with the gold. Clasping the slender length of gold and bending it to fit precisely against my engagement ring was a lovely experience.

Did you know that gold becomes less malleable the more it’s shaped? Victoria explained that after working with gold, you must heat it, so that it regains its malleable quality and you can continue to shape it. So donning goggles and heating the gold with a flame, so that a glowing red ran along the strips of metal like liquid, became a regular part of the process.

We hammered our gold with a nylon hammer (so as not to mark) around a mandrel (a sort of metal cone), so that they began to take shape, transitioning from lengths of gold to rings. And after more heating, we sawed through the bands, to remove the excess, and soldered them closed.

Victoria helped us file imperfections, and polish both bands to a glowing shine. Simon decided he preferred his with a matte finish, so he brushed it back to a soft surface.

For two plain gold bands, it was extraordinary how much character they ended up imbued with. They may be understated, but they sing with a sense of their own-ness. Victoria shared her view that the human eye can always pick up the tiny imperfections that give away a handmade object, versus a machine-made thing. I agree. There’s a unique, and very human feeling you get from handling something carefully made with love and effort by someone’s hand, and I’m so glad that I’ll have this feeling every time I glance at my own.

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